A true sportsman at heart

Mandela firmly believed in the power of sports to bring different races together

A true sportsman at heart

The streets of Joh­annesburg and Durban we­re on Friday filled with pos­ters of Nelson Mandela, the big­gest figure in the fight ag­ainst racial discrimination.

 It was the mark of a nation’s respect for their leader, who had passed away peacefully at his home on Thursday. Mandela taught the South Africans that they could stick together irrespective of the colour of their skin, and he used sports among others as a vehicle to get his message across to the millions.

Mandela could have easily ignored a lesser aspect of life like sports, and as someone who walked through immense struggles in his life it would have been perfectly logical if he had ignored it. But he made his vision for sports clear in his speech at the Fair Play Award at Pretoria in 1998.

“Reconstruction and reconciliation, nation building and development must go hand in hand. In this process, sport is a great force for unity and reconciliation….who could doubt that sports is a crucial window for it,” Mandela had said.

If anyone is familiar with the sporting side of Mandela, then it is Ali Bacher, former head of Cricket South Africa and one who made all the initiatives to bring the Rainbow Nation back to the world stage after the Apartheid days.

“Mandela loved sports, though he often didn’t show that side of him. He was very excited to see South Africa playing in the World Cup in 1992, and his statement in favour of South Africa playing that tournament made a big impact in cricketing circles,” Bacher told Deccan Herald.

“He also took initiative to reach out to Lance Klusener (former South African all-rounder) when he was playing well in the 1999 World Cup. In 2003, when the World Cup was played in South Africa he made sure that he met the SA team under Shaun Pollock and let them know his support. By that time, he was not in the best of his health, but made sure that he personally visited the team and spoke to them. It was a touching gesture by a great leader,” said Bacher.

South African skipper Graeme Smith too acknowledged the sporting side of Mandela. “As the captain of South Africa, I was very privileged to spent some time with Madiba. I vividly recall some telephone calls received from him wishing us luck before a match or a tournament. He always gave us simple but wise advice and this had a big impact on me as a leader. His words will stay with me forever, and they are relevant not only to cricket but to life as well,” said Smith.

AB de Villiers, South Africa’s ODI skipper, too echoed the sentiments. “Madiba showed a personal interest in us (players) and the team. And that was very motivating. His memory will inspire us to stick together as the team representing a nation into the future. We will miss him,” said De Villiers.

Mandela was a keen amateur boxer in his younger days before jumping into the cauldron of fight against racial discrimination. “His love for sport and his appreciation of what it could do to unify the country is legendary. In sports, he saw the foundations for a healthy future for all the youth of the country,” said Chris Nenzani, the president of CSA.

Bacher also recollected the enthusiasm with which Mandela, then past his 90s, took part in the preparations for the football World Cup held in South Africa in 2010. “He wanted to be a part of that tournament. He believed that the football World Cup was a wonderful celebration of sport, camaraderie and the coming together of humanity. In fact, Madiba, perhaps, made his last public appearance during the championship match of that tournament,” said Bacher.

Mandela’s 13-year-old great grand-daughter Zenani had died in a car accident on the eve of the opening, forcing him to cancel his presence at the opening ceremony of the tournament. The pain lingered even though he made a presence at the final. It was very different from his presence at another major sporting event a few years earlier, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when South Africa defeated New Zealand for the title. It came a year after he was elected president, and that triumph was hailed by many as a moment when sport towered over apartheid.

A heap of candles and flowers surrounded Mandela’s picture at his home in Johannesburg, bidding a warm and emotional farewell to a leader who made all available avenues to glue a diverse nation together.

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